Controversial – The Lindbergh Kidnapping and Murder

In my proposal for what would eventually become Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science, I envisioned a book where “readers encounter perplexing cases, many solved with clues unmasked by scientists and considered closed, and still others baffling puzzles open to speculation.” To me, it was important to show that science is an ever-evolving field, and that new methods and knowledge can change perspectives and conclusions once considered final.

One of the baffling puzzles that I included was the story of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder. It’s a famous case not just because it involved Charles Lindbergh, prominent aviator and public figure, but also because it was one of those cases that swirled with controversy. Although the crime ended with a conviction, questions still linger decades later about the guilt or innocence of the accused, Bruno Hauptmann, and whether justice was really served.

The Lindbergh story is a short entry, intended to be a sidebar rather than a main story. It can be found in Chapter 4: Resolve.

Wanted poster (Wikipedia)

One of the most sensational crimes of the twentieth century was the 1932 kidnapping and murder of twenty-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. Snatched from the second story nursery of the Lindbergh’s New Jersey mansion in the dead of night, the baby’s body was found two months later in a shallow grave. This after a ransom for his safe return had been paid with marked bills. Several of the marked bills were eventually found in the possession of Bruno Hauptmann. Hauptmann was arrested, charged and brought to trial.

Ransom note

No identifiable fingerprints, footprints or tire marks had been found at the scene of the crime. Other than the ransom notes and two sections of a crude homemade wooden ladder that the kidnapper had used to climb to the second floor, there was little physical evidence. 

Detectives examine the ladder left at the scene
Charles Lindbergh testifies in court (Wikimedia)

National Forest Service scientist Arthur Koehler was called to examine the ladder.  Koehler was a xylotomist, a scientist who studies growth patterns and cellular structures of wood. Koehler painstakingly took the ladder apart, examined each rung and rail, and was able to determine not only the mill where the wood had been processed and the machine that had planed it, but he was also able to show the jury that boards found in Hauptmann’s attic were from the same batch and bore the same pattern of drilled holes as the ladder. Based largely on Koehler’s testimony, Hauptmann was found guilty. Although he maintained that he was innocent to the very end, Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936.

Bruno Hauptmann (Wikipedia)

Since then disturbing questions have been raised about the case. Although few dispute the science behind the conviction, some believe that the investigation was shoddy. Reporters and curious onlookers had swarmed the crime scene, leaving tracks, touching the ladder, and contaminating evidence. Sensing the public mood, the police were all too eager to make an arrest, and Hauptmann, a newcomer to the country, was an easy target. 

To critics of the case, there are simply too many ifs, maybes and could haves to say without a doubt that Hauptmann was guilty. Questions linger and the debate continues. Was Hauptmann really the murderer? Or did an innocent man die in the electric chair? 

Perhaps some day with improved forensic methods, modern science will finally be able to settle the matter.

1 Comment

  • Josephine Verstraete

    October 16, 2020 at 8:10 am Reply

    With so many scientific innovations since that time, this may have been a different story should it happen today!

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